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Humans are story-telling animals

Posted in Characters

The popularity of Jordan Peterson for his intended audience is an interesting phenomenon.

I was provoked today by yet another sneering article, this one from Stuart Schneiderman, about Peterson's use of Jungian archetypes. Schneiderman, who is rarely above a middle-brow level of blogger, enjoys opportunities to look down on popular culture from higher-status heights. His article is an example of a typical elite slur:

  • Take a concept
  • Point out that the person using it is not perfect
  • Claim that the concept is being applied well beyond its sanctioned mandate
  • Take the “all the best minds disagree” approach to wipe it away.
  • Claim superiority to all the players

Peterson has written books (both academic and popular), speaks publicly, and has upset the wokerei with his objection to modifying pronouns or pronouncements for their comfort, but his main popularity is based on a series of lectures he gives to his university students. I recommend that you look at a few of them to understand what he tells them. His primary audience is young men who don't understand why their lives are a mess, and he gives them both insight and advice for how to change that.

The “Jordan Peterson is a horrible person and, besides, his followers are all rubes” claim that Schneiderman and other elites promulgate is a distasteful manifestation of our time, where people who claim to be intellectuals or thought leaders are far more interested in status among themselves. Socially, the claim is that the audience is dumb enough to be fooled by unsanctioned teachers [and we're not that dumb], and intellectually, the claim is that the particular teaching includes a model that is not rational or moral (or woke), namely Jungian archetypes and traditional modes of behavior [and we can't talk about or believe such things].

Objections to a point of view on these grounds is both very bizarre and alas all too typical these days.

Humans are story-telling animals. All of our perceptions are based upon narratives that are shortcuts to understanding reality, in order to better survive it. We tell ourselves stories all the time, and stories are enactments of characters. Jung's insight was to explain these characters as universal human archetypes.

How could it be otherwise? We are the descendants of people who, when they saw something move in the bush ahead of them, ran away because they feared the possible tiger, not the people who paused to construct a rational analysis of the scene (and were sometimes mistaken). Speed and pre-judgments matter to us. Rational analysis is an afterthought for when we are safe, not when we are in danger.

Our first reaction to any sort of social scene is to immediately assign acquaintances to internal representations of what we know about them, and strangers to various archetypes as placeholders. It is those stand-ins for real people that we are constantly manipulating in our heads as we navigate social situations.

The point of Jungian archetypes is not that they are immutable moral principles subject to rational analysis and debate, but that they are common, perhaps universal, shortcuts to the sorts of narratives embedded in our toolset. Objecting to the concept or particular flavor of archetypes from a rational perspective is like objecting to the fragility of our foot and ankle bones from the perspective of an engineer working from newly designed structures, rather than from the perspective of a “good enough design evolved from pre-existing materials”.

Jung's usage of an insight he devoted himself to is no doubt fraught with human behavior perils on an ad hominem basis, but the insight itself is a fruitful way of looking at the way humans think using their evolutionarily-descended toolkit. After all, we can perhaps improve on morality and rationality through intent, but we can only bring to it the tools we already have. It's a good thing for Peterson to bring those tools to light so that his students can better understand why they have the psychological filters/failings they have, and to suggest functional ways of dealing with them.

Jordan Peterson himself is a man like any other and has a man's personal failings, but ad hominem arguments about him are no more relevant than they are about Carl Jung. Certainly Peterson is incontrovertibly effective for his intended audience. Like many applied remedies, it might be more fruitful to analyze why he is effective, than to deny that he could be, in principle.

If Schneiderman and others think humans can embrace rationality and ignore the older and more fundamental toolset, then they probably believe that humans can change their behavior at will. We can all be thin, and fit, and attentive, etc., just by knowing what the rational behaviors should be (for historically contingent values of “should”). Since that demonstrably doesn't work any better for adults than children, what makes them think this is how humans can actually function?

Footnote: It's not just humans who are story-telling animals. We may model “what-if” plotlines internally all the time, but it's easy to see the same thing happening with other animals such as our pets as they scheme to steal food from each other or evaluate what might happen if they misbehave. The better an animal can evaluate situations before acting, the more likely it will survive to breed.

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    • On the perhaps unjustified suspicion that Schneiderman might not like my rebuttal on the above link, I include it in total here. (Tedious for others, I know, but I was having fun…)


      Oh, boy – I get to rebut the straw man arguments. Always fun…

      Hi, Stuart! I realize you can only respond to my comment on yesterday’s article which I expanded into a longer blog post on my own site, and here that is: ]

      Since you still like ad hominem arguments against intellectual theories (Jung is a bad man, Peterson is a bad man) I feel that I should arm you appropriately in my case so that I can be a “bad woman”. So… I’m an old Yalie from when they first started accepting women, with a degree in (basically) dead languages & mythology. My background is genuinely in ancient cultures & (oral formulaic and written) literatures (Indo-European & Western Asia), universalities of human story-telling and language, and so forth. I’ve read Stith Thompson and Aarne and Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm and all the antecedent philologists/collectors/analyzers of just the sort of archetypes that Jung drew from. Alas, I didn’t attempt to make an academic career out of my interests — I instead spent my career building and running tech companies (since one can’t earn a living too well as an academic). Enough ammo for you?

      I couldn’t care less about the contingent lives of Jung, Peterson, or anyone else. What I’m interested in is their actual work and their ideas – their intellectual theories.

      Straw Man #1: I said that humans are story-telling animals. You immediately cast a little insult across the path and then said “It would have been better to say that human beings are social animals who occasionally tell stories. But [ahem] that’s not what I said. That’s you creating Straw Man #1. You then spend the next 2 paragraphs pushing your straw man and then pivot onto yet another ad hominem attack on Peterson (“As for Peterson’s failings…”), and then begin discussing morality (“do the right thing”). But I’m talking about story-telling, not about morality. Nowhere have I said that the stories people tell themselves in moments of danger guide their morality. I claim that those stories guide their actions, that the rational analysis and morality are imposed afterwards, when the danger is past and there is time to reflect.

      Straw Man #2: “how people learn to follow rules.” I am talking about story-telling. You are claiming I am talking about learning to follow rules, such as table manners, or learning language, or learning woodcraft. Story-telling, as a survival skill, is about imagination, about what immediate decision making should be applied to a crisis situation where, if I get it wrong, I might die. It’s not as important as a social situation where I may have time to consider how not to be embarrassed, or what would be the better rational or moral choice. My whole point is about evolved human mental toolkits. If a behavior helps you survive, then it has an impact on evolution. If it just helps you avoid social embarrassment, well, … not so much. (Though I must say, potential loss of social status does seem to be motivating an awful lot of people lately.)

      And… we’re back to ad hominem for poor Peterson (“Peterson holds up his own behavior…”) You’re free to rant on this at will, of course, but it has nothing to do with my remarks.

      Straw Man #3. This one is the notion that human instinct is involved not story-telling. Well, I never mentioned “instinct” – I find that an inadequately defined concept. The reason I use “story-telling” instead is the very distinction of “running from a tiger” (by instinct, if you insist), vs “running from movement in a bush” which might be a tiger – that one requires imagination which is bolstered by stories you have heard. Chickens deal in instinct, not stories – that’s why we can fool them by holding the hatchet behind our backs when we give them their final meal.

      The next couple paragraphs deal with Straw Man #3 (instinct).

      Then things get a bit incoherent. There’s a repeat of the misread of possible dangers in the wilderness, trying to mold that into a moral guide, followed by an out-of-left-field claim that primal human instincts make humans into genocidal maniacs. (Think about that claim for a moment – that humans have an evolved tendency (“instinct”) that makes them want to exterminate humans altogether. Does that sound like the way evolution works?)

      Straw Man #4 – Contempt for rational thought. All I said was that our actions in crisis come ahead of our rational thought. What your body does when it flails in pain or flees in terror is not (easily) under your rational control – surely this is not an unusual concept. I made a claim of evolutionary involvement – those who run away live to breed – not a claim of moral or even rational inferiority. From here, Schneiderman wanders off into fascists and Nazis. Which leads us to…

      Straw Man #5 – The claim that I represent the Jungian etc. psycho-analytic treatments. I said nothing of the sort. I have no positions on psychiatric treatment (opinions, yes, but certainly not favorable ones) that I would defend intellectually. I’m skeptical of all of them, frankly. Certainly I have not defended Jungian “practice”. What I am defending is the intellectual utility of the archetype concept for how humans act in crisis by basing action on the stories we tell ourselves when we don’t have enough information or enough time to sort out more developed rational/moral responses.

      Straw Man #6 – “Again, this is narrative”. This is the claim that I think the only way to think of other people is a as members of groups. No, what I said was, in social situations where there is insufficient information and time, we do peg people however we can, on a provisional basis. We walk into a room and see an old man, a young man with a beard, an elderly woman, a drunk, etc. Yes, these are stereotypes. They are also first impressions. I never claimed they were anything but first impressions. When I meet a large drunk in a social situation, I have time to reserve my judgment about what he’s really like, but when I meet a large drunk by myself in a dark alley, I may take different action based on that first impression. To claim that humans never see other humans as members of groups on first impression is not, I think, defensible. Part of rational and moral behavior is to override that first impression and see them as individuals. Still, in moments of survival crisis, first impressions are all you get. Happily, we don’t have many such crises anymore, but the response is part of our toolkit or we wouldn’t be here.

      Straw Man #7 – my problem with rationality & free will. Sigh… All I have said is that we react first, in emergencies, based on imagination which is fueled by stories. I’m fine with rationality and free will. It’s just that they are not the very first thing that comes to hand in a crisis. Perhaps “Straw Man #7” misunderstands it, but “Myers” doesn’t.

      Now. Schneiderman does properly represent me, not a straw man (ignoring the Jungian slur) in my remarks on the malleability of human behavior at the behest of the will. FINALLY – AN ACTUAL INTELLECTUAL ARGUMENT to talk about, not a straw man. Now, he only addresses part of it (right and wrong) and I agree that people can learn that. But he concedes that behavior is not easily changed just by will (which is very much my point). Alas, he reduces that to “blaming archetypes” which is NOT what I said. I said that story-telling is more fundamental than rationality & morality in guiding actions when in crisis. That’s all. That doesn’t mean “concocting a narrative that excuses and absolves you of all responsibility.” So I guess we’re back to Straw Man #8 after all.

      November 10, 2021
  1. And, in a timely manner, here comes the latest from the world of neuroscience, making the case for the human brain as a prediction engine that actively makes inferences from sketchy sensory information, checks that for likely error, makes a different inference, rinse/repeat, until it is satisfied.

    This process happens simultaneously for each pair of consecutive layers, all the way down to the bottommost layer, which receives actual sensory input. Any discrepancy between what’s received from the world and what’s being anticipated results in an error signal that ripples back up the hierarchy. The highest layer eventually updates its hypothesis (that it wasn’t a snake after all, just a coiled rope on the ground).

    The claim is that this methodology is energy efficient for the brain.

    November 21, 2021

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